Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Mar 2013

ESPN: How Improved Are the Dolphins?

Has the Dolphins quick start in free agency dramatically altered the AFC East landscape? In a word, no.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 13 Mar 2013

30 comments, Last at 25 Mar 2013, 5:35pm by Led


by DEW (not verified) :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 2:23pm

Given how good the Patriots are, dramatically altering the AFC East landscape would take the NE team plane flying into a mountain on the way to Denver. Realistically, Miami's hopes would be to keep building on what they did last year and push into the area of 10-6, maybe even 11-5 and contend for a wild-card spot in the hope that the three good North teams chew each other to bits and the Colts' luck slips.

Of course, "realism" and "the current Miami Dolphins management team" aren't really concepts that go together...

by theslothook :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 2:50pm

Independent of Miami, it's like you said..what to do about NE. It's funny, AFC East teams have had this Ne bolder in their way for the better part of a decade. We've seen every single one of the other East teams go through multiple regime changes, qbs, free agents and Ne still remains on top. Amazingly, for all of the jets glory and talent in their Ryan AFC title runs, it was NE that won the division both years.

How much longer makes this a far more interesting question. There seems to be a fair amount of optimism that sooner or later, Brady will age and the team will crumble. Maybe, but I think Ne fans should themselves be optimistic about the future. Eventually, gronk will be fully healthy enough to play a whole year and the defense will start to ascend from suspect and solid to possibly quite good. That makes them even harder to supplant. It started last year and it will continue as they keep adding pieces. I suspect(loathe as I am to say) Ne will have 3 good runs and possibly one more sb birth in it before Brady retires. After...we'll see if bb wants to continue to coach.

by ViciousChickenOfBristol (not verified) :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 2:57pm

"Eventually, gronk will be fully healthy enough to play a whole year and the defense will start to ascend from suspect and solid to possibly quite good."

What evidence is there that that will happen? That seems like more "wishful thinking" than thinking Brady will age/decline (which there is evidence of).

by dryheat :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 11:23am

There's more evidence that it will than it won't. When did Gronkowski become injury prone? I believe he played all 16 games, plus playoffs, his first two years before a sprained ankle in the 2011 playoffs. Are there many NFL players who haven't sprained an ankle before? He broke his arm last year. Once it gets a chance to completely heal, i.e. by next season, I think the odds are better that he plays 16 games than he doesn't.

by MehlLageman56 (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 2:49pm

He was an injury risk when he was drafted out of college; that's why New England was able to draft him as low as they did. Barnwell wrote an article about how unlikely it was that Gronk would repeat his record season last year, and one of his key stats was the relative health of tight ends over the years. They tend to break down fairly quickly.

by dryheat :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 4:25pm

He had a back injury in college. He's now played three seasons in the NFL without it being an issue. I wouldn't expect it to be recurring at this point.

by Led :: Mon, 03/25/2013 - 5:35pm

If Brady continues to throw him jump balls consistently, he's going to get hurt. It's the cost of doing business for a guy his size. Without the jump balls, Gronk is just a really, really good tight end rather than a freak of nature.

by ViciousChickenOfBristol (not verified) :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 2:51pm

" the early returns are that the Dolphins haven't retained enough of their core to certifiably think they are in New England's class at the top of the AFC East."

I'm not so sure.

The Dolphins were 7-9. They lost 5 games by one score. They were 7th in scoring defense. Their weakness seemed to be uneven play from a rookie QB and a lack of scoring from the WR position. Assuming Tannehill matures and Wallace remembers how to catch a ball, the Dolphins offense could be pretty good. And their defense should be better as well.

On the other hand New England's defense is weak and hasnt shown much sign of improvement. And the elephant in the room is that the Patriots are on the verge of losing Welker and, despite what Pats fans are telling themselves, he is not just another cog in the machine.

You cant simply replace your QB's favorite target/safety valve. He has led the Patriots in receptions for 6 straight years and led the teams in yardage for 5 straight. And saying that is all because of who throws him the ball ignores the fact that he caught 111 passes for 1165 yards with Matt Cassel (who, by the way, is bad). Two injury plagued tight ends, as good as they are, is not going to make up the difference. Last year, despite clearly trying to phase him out in the beginning of the year, nearly 30% of Brady's completions were to Welker.

Now that being said, losing Welker doesnt make the Pats a bad offense, but it does make them weaker. And Miami, at least on paper, will be stronger. Based on last year, they were arguably 5 or so plays away from being 12-4, so the question is will they take that next step?

I think it will be interesting and it isnt as simple as just saying they arent in New Englands class.

by theslothook :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 3:36pm

I don't mind a friendly debate on this, especially since neither of us know and we're going off assumptions.

There are really two issues here: Dolphins get better enough to overtake current NE or Ne gets worse so that slightly improved Dolphins over take NE.

I'd prefer to discuss NE for a second. Until I see Ne's offensive line crumble, I don't think NE's style of offense is that dependent on skill position players. Of course, Gronk makes it special - but even without him its quite effective still. Everything plays off its o line imo. Its o line is what allows it to run speed no huddle. It's what allows ne to dictate playcalling because it is so dangerous with both running and pass blocking. It also enables brady to literally spread the field and block with 5. Most other teams if they tried running spread with just 5 blockers over and over - they would get steamed up the middle. But Ne's doesn't(I have charted Ne a few times - it's really quite noticeable when you see how often they don't have a rb or te block or even chip on most pass plays). This allows brady to do what he does best - quick snap, read the coverage, find the short receiver or run the ball in favorable looks. Despite whatever improvements the dolphins make on offense, I don't think its enough to overcome what Ne's offense will continue to be. Of course, maybe sebastian volmer leaving could signal its demise but I doubt it.

by VIciousChickenOfBristol (not verified) :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 8:36pm

I don't disagree with your assessment. Like you said, it is all speculation at this point.

Welker out, Amendola in. In my opinion, Welker was special and will be hard to replace and Amendola is quite injury prone. I read a funny comment on one article that said he broke three fingers, his wrist, and an ankle signing the contract. But I digress...

The Patriots will still have a potent offense, I just don't think it will be AS potent as it has been. And unless the defense makes improvements I see them as regular season statistical powerhouse that will have the same issues in the playoffs that they have had the last several years.

Like I said, I don't know if this offseason will make the Dolphins suddenly the class of the AFCE (in fact I doubt it), but it will make it more interesting. Miami gave the Pats a good game in their first meeting with a rookie QB and not much offensive talent. There shouldn't be much argument that they have increased their talent level, and if Tannehill takes the next step they could be pretty good.

by theslothook :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 1:01am

Let's see. I didn't watch tannehill much at all this year. Wasn't a fan of his receivers or his o line, but the dolphins clearly bested most of the expectations people had for them. Maybe tannehill takes the next step.

I still feel like the dolphins are a couple corners away from really contending with the pats though. We'll see if they correct that with one of the remaining free agents.

by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 11:18am

Tannehill 37
Moore 135
Henne 402
Henne 449
Pennington 1030

Here's the Dolphins primary QB the past few years. If Tannehill takes the "next step" does that mean the Dolphins get Henne level production from him or is it really possible they can have a Pennington type year? The Dolphins have a clear lack of skill players at RB, TE, LT, and RG. If we ignore the huge hole at CB and give Ireland credit for not overpaying for Long in a market that doesn't appear to want to over pay him that is still a lot of missing pieces. I think there is still hope that Long reduces his price and signs. All that said getting about 400 DYAR means the Dolphins can fight for a wild card and likely end up 7-9. But until you see Tannehill play at a higher level and see how the Dolphins answer the questions in their roster; why would anyone even think about comparing them to a team like the Patriots?

by ViciousChickenOfBristol (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 1:35pm

So your assessment is that if the Dolphins improve and Tannehill plays better, that the Dolphins will end up with the exact same record they had this year?

It isnt as if the Patriots arent missing pieces. Not much of a pass rush, no secondary. It seems as though Miami is positioning themselves specifically to attack New Englands weaknesses.

Lets be honest, New England benefitted from a soft schedule last year. They only played 6 games against teams with winning records and they lost 3 of them. They arent exactly an unstoppable force in the NFL anymore.

by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 7:46pm

The Dolphins were "better" in those Henne seasons and what was their record? I will wait to be optimistic after I see how all the holes are filled. The Patriots have been one of the best franchises in the NFL for a decade. They haven't been lucky for one year on a weak schedule. That was the 2008 Dolphins. Could the Dolphins win the AFC east. Probably but I doubt football outsiders simulations are going to give them more than 25 % chance at that.

by ViciousChickenOfBristol (not verified) :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 12:16pm

You could argue that they were "lucky" for the entire decade by being in a terrible division.

by herewegobrowniesherewego (not verified) :: Wed, 03/20/2013 - 10:05pm

They usually did quite well against the rest of their schedule, though; remember that even though their SOS often averaged only mid-to-high .4xx, they generally played the 1st placers in all the other AFC divisions.

by Sifter :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 4:04pm

Sounds right to me - the Dolphins aren't quite there. Yet with those holes on the offense they have happily ignored them to upgrade their linebackers for $60 million. Why would Jake Long reduce his price when he sees the Dolphins throwing money at lesser problems?

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 6:29pm

You're ignoring the fact that the Dolphins also dumped two big salaries after their LB signings. I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but there's a reason after their spending spree they're still 17m under the cap. I think the LBs were good moves.

Yes, they still have several more holes to fill. And also a nice number of picks with which to do it, not to mention the 17m. So let's wait and see... hard not to like the direction this offseason is taking if you're a dolfan, though.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by JDOE (not verified) :: Sun, 03/17/2013 - 11:49am

I agree with you whole-heartedly that the Patriots offense will probably dictate how much success Miami has against them next year. I'm also interested in seeing if their defense gets better or stays somewhat pedestrian.

I'm a big Dolphins fan and I have to say that, for the most part, I love Miami's aggressive off-season so far. Yes, they've spent a ton of money, but they went hard and heavy for the guys they believed in. It's about time. I'm not a big Ireland supporter by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I'm starting to like seeing what he does with his back against the wall in the final year of his contract.

The only things I question are Brandon Gibson (too slow, imo) and Phillip Wheeler. I like Wheeler, but not for the price. I must admit however, I have no problem with Wallace at 5 yrs/60 Mil. Pay the man to play. I wasn't huge on Hartline getting 6 Mil a year, but he is reliable, even if he disappears in the red zone and doesn't scare anybody.

by Myran (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 2:36pm

Not crazy about the argument that the Dolphins lost 5 games by one score. Do people forget New England lost three games by one score. And that accounted for ALL of their losses. And they had key personnel injured at different times (Hernandez at the start, Gronk at the end, Edelman middle and end).

Their defense was bad, but their offense is SO GOOD, it's ridiculous. I agree with the other post where it's about offensive line cohesion and Brady. Those two combined could make a middle of the road offense with Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell and nothing else. With Gronk & Hernandez in the fold, they'll be at least top 10, even if Amendola isn't great. Injuries can derail them, but that can be said about anybody.

The scary part of the story is if New England's defense gets better and injuries don't bite. You are talking about 2007 again. 2012 was ALMOST 2007 but injuries basically made them a run of the mill 13-3 New England team.

by theslothook :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 2:45pm

That's kind of the version of the Pats you are describing. Not quite 2007 and the defense was not 2011 bad, but had their offense been healthy all year, its quite possible they would be playing sf in the title game- which would have been an interesting game to say the least.

That said, they haven't tried yet to fix their corner problems and losing volmer could be an issue.

We'll see. O lines can be tricky. Ne has seemingly always been fine on that account, but sometimes these things can deteriorate rather quickly and very fast. The giants really come to mind so we'll see how it hurts ne.

It's funny, if Ne signs some corners and drafts another pass rusher and retains volmer, i think they are again the favorite to win afc, if not the sb.

by Thanos (not verified) :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 8:38pm

The Dolphins went 7-9 but 5 of those wins were against terrible teams and 3 of their 7 wins were by 4 points or less in other words they could have just as easily been 4-12. They are the typical middle of the pack team. They beat some good teams and then turn around and lose to a terrible team. I don't see where Miami has really improved. Mike Wallace will help their passing game but their running game took a huge hit with the loss of Bush. You say the Pats defense is weak but they were 9th in scoring defense; only a point away from Miami's average. The difference in the two teams is on offense where the Pats were number one. Losing Welker may drop them down a notch but as long as they have Brady they'll be better on offense than Miami.

by Sifter :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 4:59pm

Mike Wallace could be a good addition, depending on his ego I guess. We'll see if all this money turns him into a diva. I don't like their LB turnover though. Dansby and Burnett were perfectly decent players, only just past 30 each of them - hardly burnt out, yet they are throwing bunches of cash at Wheeler and Ellerbe. Ellerbe in particular who seemed good at rushing the passer, but awful in coverage.

I like their roster in general though - so as long as they don't make too many expensive mistakes they should improve.

by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 7:51pm

The Dolphins are changing Defensive philosophy and last year played with a bunch of guys that don't fit the scheme they want to play. You could ask why not design your schemes for the talent on hand, but what Ireland does best is rebuild because he always seems to be blowing up bridges to build towards something else and using that excuse to show why they didn't win this year, but next year in year 3 that's going to be the year...until they change philosophies again.

by Sifter :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 9:30pm

This is good to know because on the face of it the linebacker moves look somewhat questionable. The Eagles look like they might be doing similar things with their front 7 signing Isaac Sopoaga and Connor Barwin with an eye to playing 3-4 when the existing talent is much more suited for 4-3. Always makes me uneasy, particularly when schemes seemingly change so often depending on what is 'hot' eg. Seattle's defensive scheme. I'd much rather see coaches scheme around the existing talent and slowly change personnel towards their own preferences rather than continually making big moves for the right piece for the exact defense that coach wants to run in a particular year.

by MehlLageman56 (not verified) :: Wed, 03/13/2013 - 11:49pm

I think this might mean the Dolphins take the Jet's place in the division, eking out wild cards. Whether they go on any runs in the playoffs depends on how well Tannehill develops, and who the Dolphins get to fill around him. Tannehill is already better than Sanchez ever was, but the offensive line and defense are not up to the level of the 2009/2010 Jets; he'll have to blossom for the Dolphins to knock off contenders in the playoffs.
The thing about New England is that they are dependent on Brady; once he starts showing signs of aging, that offense will cool off. The running backs and offensive line are great, but the Pats don't have the defense to keep a hammerlock on the division if the offense comes back to earth. The Pats are also depending upon injury risks: the two tight ends, Amendola, Chandler Jones ( he was banged up a lot in college).

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 03/14/2013 - 6:30am

The Patriots still have quite a bit of cap room to play with. I can't imagine them not singing Vollmer back, but they still can go out and get some decent players on defense.

I did see some decline in Brady last year, but it was mostly accuracy (lowest completion percentage since 2006) issues. Of course, his DVOA and DYAR were tops in the NFL, adn the Patriots still had the best offense, so it is truly nitpicking to single out one statistic. That said, I'm not alone on this - KC Joyner wrote a column I think after teh AFCCG loss about Brady's slight decline this past season.

I don't think the Dolphins have overtaken them yet unless New England has major injury issues (or of course, if Brady gets hurt), but I don't think they are too far away.

by Thanos (not verified) :: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 8:23pm

I don't think the Dolphins are much improved at all. They lost Fasano and picked up Keller: Wash. They lost two very productive linebackers and picked up two linebackers who may not be as good although they are a little younger. They added two good but not great receivers in Wallace and Gibson. The key to their offense was Reggie Bush. He won several of the games that they won on his own and his production will be sorely missed. If Long leaves as well they're actually in worse shape than last year.

by JDOE (not verified) :: Sun, 03/17/2013 - 12:06pm

Keller is an improvement over Fasano. Albeit, not by much. Fasano is definitely the better blocker. It tells us Miami is looking for a receiving threat at tight-end. I'm hoping they add a high round te in the draft to compliment Keller. Keller, btw, was signed to a 1 year deal. A test year, if you will, so he's not breaking the bank-yet.

Ellerbe will be an exciting upgrade to the over-paid Dansby. Dansby never lived up to his contract- on the field and off it. Burnett is probably better overall than Wheeler, but he's at his ceiling, aging, and costing a lot more next year. Miami is taking a gamble that Wheeler is that good. I doubt it. He's undersized and coverage is an issue. I think they want him as a pass rusher.

Bush was a great leader and will be missed. He should be a great fit in Detroit. His production however, is attainable. He's barely been a 1000 yard back two years in a row. It appears they will rotate Lamar Miller (reggie-type back) and BPA, whether it's the looking-like-a-bust Daniel Thomas or Gray or a free agent of draftee. This team looks like they really want to take to the air next year because their runningbacks aren't brusers by any stretch of the imagination.

It would be nice if Long re-signs for the right price, but at least Ireland stuck to his guns and didn't tag Long or overpay, yet.

Long is hilding up the rest of their free agency, because his contract depends on if you can sign a Dumervil or Winston and cb, etc. Hopefully, we will have a decision by Long here shortly.

by hansenwt (not verified) :: Sat, 03/23/2013 - 2:45pm

NFL is a game of inches, split seconds, and opportunistic decisions. The question at this stage should not be about can the Dolphins unseat New England. It should be about can the stay in the game with anyone including New England and get to the playoffs. As mentioned they just did not seem to have the killer instinct late in games or the offensive weapons to make a comeback. If it is possible that all the areas that the Dolphins addressed could show an improvement over that area last year, a few more sacks, INT's, pressure, more consistency on offense and more outlets to extend a drive on third down, more experience for a young quarterback....well when you lose several games by a score including comebackers by the other team late...then as long as they do not take a step back in any area...improvement in any one area could be the difference in all those games. Yes we will have to see how the draft pans out, how those players look in the preseason, and play the games...but for now if we are improved in many areas on paper and all those players just play to their average season...then I would tell you yes..this club has a realistic chance to make the playoffs. How much damage depends on how they get there....back in or win all the easy ones or do they get in winning what they should, at least splitting the hard ones and being competitive with a chance to win in all or most of them to include the NE games. The dolphins weren't that far off last year...so lets give them a chance to play their first four games this year.